Science and the Supernatural in Osamu Dezaki’s Black Jack OAV

Dr. Black Jack from the Dezaki OAVs

Science seeks to explain the happenings of the world by appealing to (1)  observation, (2) verification or falsification of hypotheses and/or (3) natural laws.  These explanatory devices can often (but do not necessarily) entail an assumption of the truth of naturalism or physicalism.  Putting aside the philosophical problems with these metaphysical positions, let us simply state that, by and large, science invokes purely natural, empirical explanations in order to account for phenomena.

Kuroo Hazama, aka Black Jack, is the most skilled surgeon alive; however, for various reasons he does not have a medical license.  This fact does not stop him from practicing medicine and performing difficult surgeries for extortionate prices.  Black Jack is probably Dr. Osamu Tezuka’s (der Vater von Anime) second most famous character, behind only Astro Boy.  As a doctor, Black Jack is a man of science.  He seeks natural causes of ailments and applies appropriate solutions to the offending natural agent(s).

Considering all this, I find the relationship between science and the supernatural in Osamu Dezaki’s Black Jack OAV series to be unexpected and interesting.

Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – The Drums “I Need a Doctor”

Key art from the Black Jack OAV

Dezaki didn’t make a fanciful adaptation with his Black Jack OAV, and the titular character is a pretty no-nonsense dude.  So, when he goes to a remote, rural village to treat an illness which the residents believe to be a curse, I assume he’s not only going to cure the patient but also out the whole “curse” business as bullshit.  Surprisingly, that is not exactly how things always play out in this series.  In fact, as the show progresses, the phenomena occurring in the patients become increasingly supernatural.

The initial episode features a very old disease which is thought to have been wiped out.  From there, Black Jack moves to treating ailments whose symptoms are pretty outrageous; however, the causes are psychosomatic.  Episode five marks a shift in the kinds of sicknesses that befall Black Jack’s clients.  Our good doctor believes his patient requires heart surgery.  He proceeds to expertly open her up, and what does he find?  Oh, just a blue snake demon wound tightly around the patient’s heart!  Subsequent episodes contain a great tree spirit and a talking, face-shaped carbuncle (ew…just, ew).

It’s interesting how Black Jack approaches his analysis and treatment of these sorts of conditions.  Well, first of all, it’s significant that he is even that he treats them at all.  Any physician would be within his rights to throw his hands up and say, “Demon snakes?  Fuuuuck this shit.  I’m out.”  Not the good doctor Black Jack.  The thing is, though, he doesn’t change his methodology of analysis or treatment.  I’m sure he’s seen his fare share of ailments, but when the spirit of a tree gets involved, Dr. Black Jack has just cause, I feel, to step back and rethink his approach.  Hell, he doesn’t really even seek to explain away or reduce supernatural occurrences to natural ones.  Our protagonist just rolls with the supernatural explanations but also continues to apply the methods of medicine to these phenomena which lie beyond the science of his day.

A troubled patient in the Black Jack OAV

Here is the sense in which Black Jack is very Japanese in a traditional sense.  The ontology of the series does not have an isomorphic relationship to its science; the borders of the former extends beyond those of the latter.  Natural and the supernatural beings interact on the same metaphysical plane.  Though this may somewhat dilute the meaning of the term “supernatural,” I think the idea here is easily grasped conceptually.  Supernatural entities can affect human beings, but these “other” beings can, in turn, experience pushback from humans.  Each class of being can effect the other directly.

So, there’s interplay between the natural and the supernatural; the ontic veil has been lifted, so to speak.  Big deal, you  might say, this happens in a lot of anime.  Well, you’re right, but the fact that it happens in this anime is, I think, surprising and significant.  I point out above that a doctor isn’t really expected to treat the kinds of illnesses that emerge in this show.  That is a textual or in-universe reason that it’s weird that the show plays out the way that it does.  There is also an extra-textual reason:  this is a show about a medical doctor, originally created by a medical doctor (Tezuka).  It’s not about a witch, warlock or mutant (in the American comic book sense of the term).  It’s about a really smart, gifted, talented guy who learned a whole lot.  Ostensibly, Black Jack is a medical drama rather than a supernatural one; it’s roots should be firmly planted in the empirical, but, as stated, its scope is broader than that which is ambitious and kinda fascinating.

Now, we come back to Black Jack’s treatment of the affected.  As mentioned, the doctor does not waver from his traditional approach.  He does not trade in his medical kit for tools with more…metaphysical application.  Black Jack prescribes the same treatment for his patients that have supernatural ailments as his patients that have natural ones:  surgery.  He cuts them open and removes their tumors.  And, you know, it works…sometimes permanently, sometimes only temporarily.  But, even when the fix is impermanent, the surgical procedure is effective insofar as it removes what is ailing the patient’s body, bringing her some relief.  Those spirits might screw with us humans, but, in the world of Black Jack, we can screw right back with them.

By way of summary, Black Jack is interesting because it has all the trappings of a realistic-ish medical drama, but its ontology is decidedly not that of a doctor.  The “extra-scientific” beings in this ontology interact with the “normal” everyday ones.  Black Jack accepts the existence of these beings and accepts them as a medical explanation; however, he still treats his patients with the same methods as always.  This treatment is effective in varying degrees.  The takeaway is that human beings can effect the supernatural as much as they effected by it.

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Science and the Supernatural in Osamu Dezaki’s Black Jack OAV

3 thoughts on “Science and the Supernatural in Osamu Dezaki’s Black Jack OAV

  1. Indicolite says:

    You know that Gundam post I was thinking about writing, about how Newtypes didn’t quite jibe with the rest of the universe, being too supernatural for a universe that sticks mostly to the realistic? You made some of the points I was going to in mine. But it’s interesting to compare the dynamic between the supernatural and the natural in Gundam compared to Black Jack – while in Black Jack, the supernatural is ever-present (this is based mostly off of your post, since I haven’t seen it), in Gundam it takes its time to assert itself in the plot, slowly trickling in the background of the giant robot space politics until the end of the show where suddenly HOLY CRAP SPACE PSYCHICS EVERYWHERE!!! Also, it seems more like in Black Jack, the supernatural is a malevolent force, causing diseases and misery where it touches people on the other side of the veil, while in Gundam it’s a neutral force, possessed by both good and bad people (though still being an object of fear).

    1. Thanks for reading, man.

      Yeah, everything I’ve heard about the TV series and Newtypes suggests that Tomino didn’t come up with the concept until Gundam was well into its run, so it was backloaded into the story. By contrast, the movies do a better job of interspersing the concept throughout the narrative.

      In Black Jack, there are a few instances in which the supernatural is a positive, but, yes, it is mostly malevolent, which is an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me.

  2. zwei_dinge says:

    I haven’t seen Black Jack either, but your analysis of Kuroo Hazama made me think of Tertius Lydgate from Middlemarch. Unlike Hazama, he’s never satisfied with just treating the symptoms or accepting merely phenomenal descriptions of diseases. He wants to get at the transobservational truth of the matter and use it to revolutionize medical practice, which brings him into conflict with the country bumpkins in Middlemarch. Of course, he pretty spectacularly fails to apply his scientific/philosophical methodology to his own relationship with Rosamond.

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